Buffalo City Hall Jun07 - 01
They had a way with words back then.
City Hall Mosaic Buffalo NY (source: Andrew Nash, 2007)

As a city planner who grew up in Buffalo NY I can’t help but be interested in how to revitalize Rust Belt cities. My solution: Rustbelt Cities need to be bolder and more creative (DUH.. what city/company/person doesn’t need to be bolder and more creative?).

Rust Belt city leaders will say, we are being bold and creative, we’re planning a big box store to compete with the suburbs or we’re planning a festival marketplace/ convention center/ casino to attract tourists. What’s not bold about that?

Buffalo aerial sept08-12
Buffalo waterfront and downtown: looking for a few truly bold and creative ideas.
(Source: Andrew Nash, 2008)

Well, big’s not always bold and it’s rarely creative. Truly bold and creative ideas are place-based. In other words you can’t create a festival marketplace without the festival and you can’t build a big box store without the suburban streets and parking.

There’s a saying: if you’re an apple don’t try to be a banana, you’ll always be a second-rate banana. It’s even worse for a city: if you try to be a suburb you’ll destroy what’s good about the city (and, you probably won’t be successful anyway).

What can cities do? Create the festival and place-based development will follow. Support businesses that fit into the existing infrastructure and complimentary businesses will follow. As anyone who has ever practiced this type of ground-up planning can tell you, developing bold and creative ideas that are place-based is much harder than it sounds.

Gates Circle Buffalo-sept10-4
Buffalo’s Omstead-designed park system is a
bold and creative idea that’s place-based.
(Gates Circle, source Andrew Nash, 2010)


One of the biggest challenges is that often Rust Belt city leaders are so desperate they’ll support anything short of a chemical waste dump (and sometimes even the waste dump). Once leaders embrace an idea anyone opposing it is a NIMBY or against progress.

This “with us or against us” view came to mind when I read the fascinating post the Problem with Boosterism in the Rustwire blog. The post and very thoughtful comments describe how Boosterism can blind people to addressing real city problems.

But, and here I return to my current work, social networks and Web 2.0 technologies can be used to help develop and implement the kinds of bold and creative – but place-based – ideas needed to revitalize Rust Belt cities. It’s an exciting period and there’s much to learn about how this will work. Some resources I have found who are using social networks and Web 2.0 techniques to help improve Rust Belt city planning include:

  • Rustwire Blog – a group of journalists doing some serious thinking about Rust Belt issues, check out their Blog Roll for more excellent blogs and their flickr group Rustwire for sharing photos.
Buffalo Elmwood May10-02
Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo
(Andrew Nash, 2010)
  • Buffalo Expat Network – this is a really cool idea, mobilizing people with connections to a city (e.g. who have moved away) to generate ideas and support for revitalization; (they have fun too!) … includes a Facebook social network.
  • Art Voice Buffalo – great example of an alternative newspaper covering local issues without the Boosterism that seems to be required of ‘traditional’ city newspapers (see especially the stories by Bruce Fisher – here’s a recent one on fiscal policies and urban planning). I am sure that there are similar newspapers in other Rustbelt cities.
  • GLUE – Great Lakes Urban Exchange – founded in 2007 as a forum for people to exchange stories, ideas, and best practices between otherwise isolated cities ranging from Buffalo to St. Louis to Minneapolis. An excellent platform for learning from each other.
  • PPS – Project for Public Spaces – while PPS does not focus on Rust Belt issues, their approach to “placemaking” is exactly the type of ground-up planning that’s needed in Rust Belt cities.

The list is far from complete. Please add more links and ideas in the comments!

I will tag future posts on Rust Belt city planning: Rust Belt Cities. Several of my previous posts tagged Buffalo also deal with Rust Belt city planning … I think some are bold ideas – like tearing down a couple of freeways. Finally, here’s  a link to all my Buffalo flickr photos.